Sea otter spotted in Huntington Harbour

Orange County sighting is rare, but scientists say residents are likely to see more of the marine mammals.

A sea otter was found floating in Huntington Harbour on Monday evening. Scientists say he likely followed a food source into the harbor.

HUNTINGTON BEACH – A California sea otter was spotted Monday evening cruising Huntington Harbour – a rare sight for residents, but one that has become more frequent in Southern California waters in recent years.

The Lorthioir family said they saw the otter about 6 p.m. and first mistook it for a dog in trouble.

“My neighbor started screaming for my husband to get his dinghy to save the puppy,” Cece Lorthioir said, laughing. “Then my husband looked and said, ‘That’s an otter; I can’t go out and get that.'”

The Lorthioirs and their neighbor, Kathie Saveliev, watched for an hour while the otter floated around Humboldt Island.

“It was very odd to see him just lounging around carelessly in the middle of our channel,” 12-year-old Isabelle Lorthioir said. “This is the first time I’ve seen an otter in the wild. He was definitely fuzzy and cute.”

Julianne Steers, director of husbandry for the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, said it’s likely the otter followed a food source and ended up in the harbor.

“We don’t see them too frequently. Most of the sea otters were hunted out decades ago,” Steers said. “However, their natural range does extend down California’s coast and even to Baja California.”

A whale watching boat from Dana Wharf saw an otter off the coast of Laguna in December 2011. It was their first sighting in 30 years, and Steers said there were several sightings last summer.

While otters sometimes float linked together by their paws, it’s not uncommon to see one on its own, she said.

There are a variety of possible reasons sea otters have been popping up in Orange County waters, Steers said, including the revitalization of kelp forests off the coast.

“Otters enjoy that habitat and find their food source there,” Steers said.

Another factor is the termination of a project that removed otters from Southern California waters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a program in 1987 that introduced a small species of otters to San Nicolas Island, which is part of California’s Channel Islands, in an effort to protect the federally-threatened sea otter.

As part of that program, “no otter zones” were set up, which meant any otters found south of Santa Barbara County were relocated to the north.

The FWS terminated the program in December 2012. Allowing the otters to swim in their natural range is expected to boost recovery of the species, according to a report on the program. The decision went into effect Jan. 18.

“Sea otters are now back in Southern California waters,” Steers said.

Cece Lorthioir said the otter didn’t appear to be struggling and it eventually made its way out of the harbor.

“It was high tide so it could be that he was carried in to our end of the harbor,” she said.

She said the otter, which her daughter named Olly, is one of the rarest animals she’s seen in the harbor. She’s spotted sea lions, but also had some not-so-common sightings of sharks, dolphins and a white swan.

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